Friday, September 23, 2011

Using a Child's Home Language at your Centre...

I wrote this leaflet a while ago for a new family and it's been in regular use since so I thought that it might as well be 'out there' as succinct information is hard to come by (as I discovered at the time). Although the context is Aotearoa/New Zealand, maybe this will be of use to some readers.

The Use of Home Language at the Kindergarten

Firstly, for those families who speak a language other than English at home, good on you! But you can be forgiven for thinking that your child needs to exclusively know English to be able to successfully learn and achieve in New Zealand and that's what the education system is for. This is true, mastering the main language of a community is vital, but research also shows us that children who use their home language outside of the home will achieve more in a variety of ways.

We realise that many of you will have questions about this and it is hoped that this pamphlet will convince you of the many benefits of having your home language included in the centre.

Why are we doing this?

As a registered early childhood centre we are legally required to uphold the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and protect and promote the language and cultural values of Māori. This partnership between Māori and Pākehā is reflected in Te Whāriki, our curriculum for the early childhood sector. It is structured around the principles of Empowerment, Holistic Development, Family and Community, and Relationships. Te Whāriki recognises that children learn through their relationships with “people, places and things” and that they are part of a 'learning community' that includes family, the centre, and wider community. It stresses how teachers must deliberately create links between the home and the early childhood centre and incorporate the many strengths a child has, like a home language, into the curriculum.

So while our curriculum is considered a bi-cultural document, it also asks us to recognise and include all the languages of our learning community. Yes, we have to do this, but knowing how children learn and develop also makes us as teachers want to do this.

But they will learn to speak our language at home

Research shows that if the minority language is used only in the home with no community support it will gradually die out. This is called language shift. As the children enter schooling where they are taught only in English, the child's ability to speak the home language decreases as they increasingly use English at home. The reality of our education system is that young bilingual children will not become bilingual adults.

Children can lose their ability to talk in their mother tongue within 2-3 years of starting school. They may still understand the language, but they will use English in speaking with their family. As children grow up the language gap between parents and children can become an emotional divide and children frequently become alienated from the cultures of both home and school with predictable results.

While some minority cultures do have a large enough population in New Zealand to offer a range of natural settings to use their mother tongue, for many others, this community support does not exist and language shift occurs.

So why is learning two or more languages so good for learning?

Knowing two or more languages has positive effects on children's educational development. As children learn they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. For instance, children who know only one language see a table as 'table', but bilingual children can see that the word 'table' is just a label and that other labels are also linked to the object. Thus they have more practice in learning just how language works as they are able to compare and contrast the ways in which their two languages organise the world.

So what benefit will using some phrases and songs at the centre have for my child?

We want to build bridges between home and the centre - to use the experience and knowledge that children possess and are comfortable using, and bring these into the classroom.

At the core of this request is the desire to empower students: to create academic competence, personal confidence, mana, identity, dignity, to build upon their cultural integrity, their individual abilities.

A crucial factor in the development of a child's personal identity and confidence is how their home language is seen in places like school where English can be seen as the 'right' or only language to use. Children quickly notice the power that comes with speaking English and how it 'gets them places' and this impacts on their attitudes towards their home language and essentially 'who they are'.

There is a close connection between a healthy, respected cultural identity, and mental development. To reject a child's language in the school is to reject the child. When children pick up the message that the school would rather you 'leave your language and culture at the door', children also leave a major part of who they are - their identities - at the door. When they feel this rejection, they are much less likely to participate actively and confidently in classroom instruction.

Will the other children learn words, phrases and songs from our culture or just the teachers?

Both. The centre is an organic part of the community it serves and the different language backgrounds of our families are valued and seen as a positive asset to the centre.

The aim is to use written texts, pictures and symbols, spoken words, phrases and songs in a way that moves on from 'special' occasions to normal everyday usage. While we may have limited skills in expanding a child's home language, by recognising, validating and incorporating aspects of their home language into everyday interactions, we hope to make it a more welcoming and safer place for them to learn and grow.

So what can we do?

We would love to talk with you about your feelings, and experiences about using your home language here in New Zealand. We want to hear about your dreams and aspirations for your children and how we as teachers can help achieve this.

Lastly, we would like to thank you for the opportunity to enrich all of us here at the Kindergarten by sharing your home language.


Baker, C. (2000). The care and education of young bilinguals. An introduction for professionals. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. (2000). Bilingual Children's Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education . Retrieved 1-6-2010.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Jones-Diaz, C. & Harvey, N. (2007). Other words, other worlds: bilingual identities and literacy. In Makin, L. Jones-Diaz, C. & McLachlan, C. (Eds). Literacies in childhood:Changing views and challenging practice. Sydney: McLennan & Petty.

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